When Federico Fellini won the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, he said, “I come from a country, and I belong to a generation, for whom America and the movies were almost the same thing.”
That remains true even to a generation in its infancy when Fellini won his Oscar in the early 90s, a few months before his death. As Indians, we continue to distinguish themselves between local films and American films . But what does American cinema mean to us? Is it the splashy Hollywood blockbusters, the sappy Oscar movies, those older classics which your parents saw at first run? Or is it possible to look at American cinema with fresh eyes, to explore the greatest national and narrative film tradition in the world in a new manner.
American film history constitutes a narrative unto itself, especially since what is American is different for people inside and outside America. When the American Film Institute (AFI) put out a list of 100 films in 1998, its results were highly criticized by several commentators, such as Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum wrote a critique titled “List-O-Mania” criticizing the AFI List for the narrative it creates by exclusion, one that was self-satisfying rather than critical of American society, that drew from historical and popular consensus rather than aesthetic and technical impact, hostile to experimental, avant-garde and genre cinema. Rosenbaum found the best way to respond to a list. Create another list. His Alternate 100 American Films, restricted to one film per director and excluding any film in the AFI list, challenged many people’s ideas on how a national cinema can be celebrated.
Recently BBC put out a list of 100 American films. Its focus was possibly even more conservative than the 1998 AFI List or indeed the lesser known 2007 list (which, perhaps not coincidentally, did feature a few titles from Rosenbaum’s Alternate 100 list), and to our eyes, excessively geared to recent films and populist titles. We did not think or notice this list much, but as a result of in-office discussions and general excitement, we felt determined to make our own list, mostly to see how it would resemble or differ from the lists put out by AFI, BBC and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The results were interesting. There are 25 films that we share in common with the BBC list, 13 in common with the AFI list and 19 in common with Mr. Rosenbaum’s list. This proves that aside from a small crop of famous and obscure titles, the vast majority of titles that round up a hundred remain up in the air.
In general, we tried, as far as possible to avoid crowding out film-makers with multiple titles. But given our auteurist bent, we could entirely follow through with it, since some film-makers are more equal than others. Orson Welles leads the pack with four films on the list, followed by 3 from Scorsese, Altman and Nicholas Ray. Hitchcock, Ford, Sternberg, Lubitsch, Hawks, Coppola, Keaton among others? 2 each. In terms of genres, there is perhaps more Films Noir than Westerns, more comedies than musicals. We also have a lot more non-fiction films, 12 in all though it might be 13 or 15 based on whether a few other titles qualify as fiction or not.
In general, we have tried to include lesser known American titles in favor of established classics. As such titles like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather are not featured in this list but a few favorites do make it into this list nonetheless. Other exclusions were far more painful.
The list of film-makers not on the list – James Benning, Elaine May, D. W. Griffith, Raoul Walsh, George Cukor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Frank Capra, Douglas Sirk, Busby Berkeley, Stanley Donen, Richard Fleischer, Andre de Toth, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Roger Corman, Budd Boetticher, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Spike Lee, Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Gus van Sant etc.
One can make an alternative list of 100 films composed of films by these men and women. The reason why they didn’t make it is mostly because in the case of Shirley Clarke, her most notable titles such as The Cool World are still not on home video. In the case of Ken Jacobs, others had not seen their films and we couldn’t get consensus. In the case of Wes Anderson, it was hard to find a single defining “official” classic since his films are consistently good to the point that it’s hard to select one outstanding film. There are still even more movies we have not yet seen, such as the works of Hollis Frampton for instance. We have also excluded animation even though some of us appreciate the work of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, and others are keyed to the works of Oscar Fishinger.
The big exclusion is the films of Charlie Chaplin. Lest people think we have finally converted from Chaplin to Keaton (who gets two films and would have gotten more if only one more of us had seen Our Hospitality at the time of voting), we strongly agree with Jean-Pierre Melville who likewise excluded Chaplin from his exhaustive list of great American directors, "because he is God, and therefore beyond classification”. That is true of all the great film-makers in general.
This list is merely an activity of play, coming out of spontaneous energy. It is not definitive but it is definitely sincere in our attempts at selecting the best and most meaningful films. As Jonathan Rosenbaum stated in his article, “In the final analysis, selecting America's 100 greatest movies has to be an ongoing, perpetual activity of exploration and discovery--something that can only happen if we stop to consider what we still don't know about the subject and try to set up some channels for educating ourselves.”
The list is alphabetical and not in any order: